Gov. Paul LePage continues to challenge the federal government over how to administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

In a letter sent late last week to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the governor threatened that if the USDA won’t allow Maine to ban the purchase of certain foods – sugar-sweetened drinks and candy – he will end the state’s administration of the program.

“It’s time for the federal government to wake up and smell the energy drinks,” LePage wrote. “Doubtful that it will, I will be pursuing options to implement reform unilaterally, or cease Maine’s administration of the food stamp program altogether. You maintain such a broken program that I do not want my name attached to it.”

SNAP, a food assistance program for low-income households, is entirely funded at the federal level, but states administer the monthly benefits to individuals and assume some of those administrative costs. The USDA allows states some flexibility over how the program is administered, but it’s not clear whether a state can just end its role as LePage suggested.

A USDA representative could not provide answers to emailed questions about that Tuesday, but Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said Maine residents will lose access to food stamps if the state withdraws from the program.

In an email Tuesday night, Pingree said a USDA spokesperson told her: “States have the option to administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). If they choose not to do so, their citizens will not receive these nutrition assistance benefits. USDA does not have the authority or funding to administer SNAP at the state level.”

Pingree said pulling out of the program could have dire consequences for many Mainers.

“We are literally talking about taking the food off the table of Maine families struggling to make ends meet,” Pingree said in the email. “SNAP is a program funded by the federal government, but the law is clear – it’s up to the states to run it. If Maine were to pull out of SNAP, then Maine people would not have access to it. Families that depend on SNAP – seniors, children, veterans – would go hungry. This is not how we treat each other in Maine.”

NEARLY 200,000 RECEIVE BENEFITS

Currently, about one in seven Mainers receives food stamps. In May, a little more than $21.5 million was distributed to 195,259 individuals.

Since LePage was elected in 2010, he has sought to make major changes to all public assistance programs. Recently, he has turned his attention to food stamps. He has tried several times to push legislation that would restrict what recipients can buy, but hasn’t found enough support for many of his proposals, even among members of his own party.

Frustrated by an inability to make the changes he wants, LePage and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have gone after the Obama administration and officials at USDA, including Vilsack.

“The Obama administration goes to great lengths to police the menus of K-12 cafeterias, but looks the other way as billions of taxpayer dollars finance a steady diet of Mars bars and Mountain Dew,” LePage wrote. He said Maine’s obesity rate has doubled in the past 20 years and its diabetes rate has more than doubled, from 3.9 percent to 9.5 percent of the state’s roughly 1.3 million residents.

This isn’t the first time LePage has painted public assistance recipients with a broad brush, and his statements have prompted Democrats and others to accuse him of demonizing poor people. The USDA also has said in response to various calls for restrictions that “no clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.”

The most recent exchange between Maine and the federal government stems from efforts by the LePage administration to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages and candy using food stamps. In March, LePage officials requested permission from USDA to impose a ban as part of a “demonstration project.”

In a June 8 letter from the USDA to Bethany Hamm, who oversees Maine’s SNAP program, the federal government said it still had “significant concerns” about Maine’s request. The gist of USDA’s objection was that the state did not properly evaluate how such a ban would be carried out.

HISTORY OF FOOD STAMP CLASHES

The so-called sweets ban is only a part of the philosophical divide between the LePage and Obama administrations on how the food assistance program should be handled.

In March, Vilsack criticized the LePage administration for kicking more than 12,000 childless, unemployed adults off food stamps without doing enough to help them find jobs or learn skills. The reduction came because LePage chose to enforce federal work requirements that had been waived since the Great Recession.

“I think he’s looking for a shortcut, he’s looking for a way of making it easy on the state,” Vilsack said at the time.

Mayhew shot back at Vilsack, calling the federal government “out of touch.”

Last year, DHHS placed new requirements on SNAP recipients, including an asset test for childless adults that makes them ineligible if they have more than $5,000 in cash or property, including snowmobiles, boats, motorcycles, Jet Skis, campers, ATVs or other valuables.

The state also has pushed food stamp recipients to add their driver’s license photo to electronic benefit cards, which the LePage administration says promotes security and deters fraud and waste. The governor had wanted to make photo ID mandatory, but the USDA rejected that request in 2013. Instead, the administration instituted a voluntary photo ID program, although federal officials investigated DHHS and issued a warning after letters sent to recipients didn’t make it clear that the photo ID was not mandatory.

OPTIONS TO BUY HEALTHY FOOD

This month, Mayhew went to Washington to testify at a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is investigating fraud in the food stamp program. During that hearing, she clashed with Kevin Concannon, the USDA’s under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services and a former Maine DHHS commissioner under then-Gov. Angus King, about the photo ID issue.

In December, the USDA put Maine’s food stamp administrators on notice after finding the state was slowest in the nation in processing applications for benefits.

At the time, Mayhew blamed the lengthy wait times on the state’s transition to a new digital system for processing applications, and said that a month after the USDA cited the state, timely benefits decisions were made in 86 percent of cases.

While the LePage administration fights over whether recipients should be able to buy junk food, the USDA has taken a different approach: increasing options for recipients to buy healthy food. Over the past five years, purchases at Maine farmers markets using food stamps increased by 860 percent, according to new data provided by the USDA.

 


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